Five ways being a practicing artist affects my teaching.

After I finished school, I got a teaching job and moved to Dallas. Trying to get to know the neighborhood and develop a social life, I wandered down to an unveiling party of a new set of murals in Deep Ellum. While I was there, a guy walked up to me and asked me if I was an artist. I gave a resounding, “yeah, kind of.” He handed me a blank skateboard deck and told me to paint something on it and get it back to him. So I did. It ended up being for a charity auctioning off the skateboards at a really fun event. From there I met other artists in the community, did a couple of other charity events, painted a mural, and finally found a little gallery that would regularly show my work. Since then, I have continued to make and show artwork. This has caused a major change in how I approach teaching. So, I thought I would give you five major lessons I’ve learned in continually making my own art.

Replicating a photo is boring.

Repeatedly copying an image exactly gets old after a while. Sure, it’s important to use references, but it’s also important to experiment. I found with my own work that if I over planned it and knew exactly how it would turn out, I eventually lost motivation to make the work. After a bit of observation, I found the same was true of my students. They would start excitedly on a project, but they’d start to drag about half way through. Once we all started leaving room for the unknown, experimentation, and chaos, we were all much more driven to make the work.

Sometimes you aren’t feeling it.

Often times, I will take a break from a work of art. If I’m not feeling it, I will set it aside, somewhere I will see it every once in a while, and come back to it when I’m feeling inspired. My students are no different. Sometimes they hit a dead end in a work of art. To allow for this, I have changed the grading in my advanced junior and senior classes. I have made it so my students are evaluated on how much work they are doing, not how much work they have finished. Some students love to work start to finish. Some students like to have two or three things going at once. I can go either way. I don’t see any reason to force them to conform to an art making style that isn’t their own.

Art is more serious when someone sees it.

When I began showing work, I suddenly began taking my work much more seriously. Things I would have let slide earlier in my art making, now I refined until it was right. My students are the same way. If they know I am the only one who is going to see it, they are willing to cut corners, or turn it in just to get it off their easel.   If they know it is going to end up online, or in the hallway, or in a competition, they focus much more to get it right. Knowing this, I have built it into my course. My students are now required to share their work with the outside world. They can do that however they want. Most upload their art to social media; others hang their art in coffee shops. Either way works.

Art making is not about fulfilling an assignment.

I hate making art for some arbitrary topic. Now that I can be more selective with the exhibitions I participate in, I avoid any show that asks me to make work that fits their topic. If I have something made already that works for an exhibition’s theme, I’m there, but I have no desire to make art for someone else. My art is about me, and the ideas I want to explore, and the things I value. Because of this, I have designed my advanced classes to allow my students to work on their own topics. I make suggestions, but I try to leave it as broad as possible. This way, they feel like the work they are making has real purpose to them. They won’t stop being an artist when the summer starts, or the semester ends, or their graduation comes. Art becomes a part of them and the way they process and interact with the world.

Shared purpose creates trust.

Just knowing that I am a practicing artist makes everything I say seem more valid to my students. They trust my input because we have the shared struggle of trying to find our voice through art making. They know I am still working on the same issues that they are, but that I have more experience and success. This also leads me to listen to my students as much as I talk to them. We have artistic discussions as one artist talking to another, instead of a teacher talking to a student. It makes for a much healthier and productive working environment. There is no argument or rebellion.

 

Being a working artist so greatly improves my pedagogy. My very existence dismantles the myth of the starving artists. They see me, fat and happy, and living comfortably, all while living a life full of art. So, my advice to you, my fellow art educators, is to get off the sidelines and start making art. Not only will you be a better teacher and an all around happier person, there’s a chance someone might give you money for your art, and who couldn’t use a little more of that.

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